Tag Archive: afrobeat


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A Man Alive’ is the fourth album from Thao Nguyen with her project The Get Down Stay Down (she also records as half of Thao & Mirah) and is one of the most personal to date. A large amount the lyrics deal with absence specifcally her father’s absence. These lyrics are a stark contrast to the albums thrashy party music. There is a bittersweet sense throughout the album that binds it together and rewards the listener with repeated listens as their understanding deepens and the layers are peeled away.

Merrill Garbus (aka Tune-yards) is on board as producer and contributes a lot instrumentally and back with backing vocals throughout the album. There is a lot of similarities between Thao’s vocal delivery and sonic and stylistic choices when compared to Tune-yards back catalogue. The use of lo-fi and distorted fuzzy production and funky, tribal rhythms that have a hint of Afro be about them I just two similarities. However, these similarities don’t spoil a brilliant album and is like a more direct version of Tune-yards “Nikki Nack” that sometimes suffered from overstuffing every song with elements and thus could be a very overwhelming experience. Another useful reference point is that of Deerhoof who combine serrated indie/post-punk guitars with Afro beat rhythms and poppy vocal melodies and have a similarly lo-fi aesthetic.

The album opens with ‘Astonished Man’ with a down tempo beat and vocals opening the track, then heavy buzzing synth bass joins in and push the track forward. In the chorus there’s a cool hook played by what sounds like a badly tuned guitar. Everything is very raw and lo-fi in a good way and reminds me of Deerhoof. Though Thao can create a more complex melody. Continuing in a similar vein is ‘Departure’ with its opening minimal sound set just a drum machine some percussion and vocals but then we get stabs of guitar and a deep thick synth bass joining in. At points in the chorus vocals to become a little grating and recall that of Garbus’ wI personally I don’t have a problem with Garbus’ vocals but I understand how they can annoy some people. ‘Departure’ is also the track where the lyrical theme begins With the shouted line “Half of all my blood in vain,” standing out. ‘Guts’ with its down tempo sparse beats and organ the only things accompanying the vocals, continues the lyrical theme with Thao stridently declaring “I’ve got the guts/ I don’t need my blood.”.

Next up is ‘Fool forever’ which opens with a tightly wound guitar playing across fast skittering drums while the vocal moves steadily over the top. This then breaks down temporarily before the riff returns to be joined by another riff played on very distorted organ, the jittery feel of the track is amplified by these elements combining. The Ballard-like ‘Millionaire’ Recalls ‘Maps’ by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs with Thao playing the part of Karen O. That this time the word is not directed at a lover but her father, “Oh daddy, I broke in a million pieces/ That makes you a millionaire.” The song opens with a sparse guitar melody and held organ delayed chords backing an almost bare Thao. A bass drum keeps time far in the background. Around 20 seconds in with the guitar and organ making a musical change to play soaraway chords for Thao to sing a long reverberant melody over. This structure is repeated throughout.

‘Meticulous bird’ puts us back on the upbeat tip with driving drums kick in the track off. Screeching synths play, counter point to the vocals weaving in in and out of the verse and chorus. The track is little difficult to listen to at first but once you get used to it actually works very well. It also another example of contrasts of sweet and serrated views on this album.The album closes as it began with a down tempo track and also brings back the main lyrical theme on The album closes as it began with a down tempo track and also brings back the main lyrical theme on ‘Endless Love’ where Thao sings a simple melody (sample lyrics include “I’ve got an endless love/ no one can starve,” and the chorus'”I don’t want it/ I don’t want it/ Carve it on out of me.”) over a sparse bass line and beat its Garbus on backing vocals again. The track provides very mellow end to the album though this is offset by nasty fuzzy guitar solo wind its wonky way through the middle of the track.

Let me know what you think of ‘A Man Alive’ in the comments or via Twitter.

Mulatu Cover

I first came across Mulatu Astatke’s music after buying “Inspiration Information” (2009) a collborative album made with London’s funk/jazz/psychdelica band The Heliocentrics. The album hasn’t been off my mp3 player since and I’ve explored his impressive back catalogue of Ethio Jazz (the genre he pionneered in the late 60’s that combines tradtional Ethiopia modes and rhythms with those of Western jazz) albums. Four years later he returns with an album that gets closer to his aim of a perfect hybrid of Ethiopian music and jazz. The album features a number of tradtional that have been modified by Astatke so that they can play the 12 tone Western scales used in jazz.

The album opens with ‘Azmari’ the whole of Astake’s band in full swing, playing an Afro-funk/Latin jazz rhythm, brass stabs, upright bass underpins the patter of percussion and drums shift under everything. A krar (six-string lyre) flys in playing a counterpoint melody to the brass. There’s a great tense battle between the instruments around 2 minutes 40 seconds in, then the track breaksdown to upright bass twang, masinko (single-bowed lute) scraping and a vibraphone twinkling high above. The intros drums, percussion and melodies dive back in soon after. Next up is ‘Gamo’ a fast moving krar melody, upright bass line, clip-klopping percussion and African vocal chants open the track. Then the brass moves in and out with purpose. The track feels both Latin and African all at once (a trademark of Mulatu’s sound), it’s light yet not without substance. There’s a nice krar solo and low synth drones come in for the final minute or so, the interweaving male and female vocals are great too!!

‘Gambella’ starts with three sparse melodies playing out (vibes, piano & krar) over tumbling toms and waves of cymbals, this creates a forboding atmosphere but with shafts of light courtesy of the cymbals, vibes and high piano notes. The full beat, bass line and acoustic guitar melody kick in at 1 minute 30 seconds in before the horns strut in and blares out over the top. There’s great attitude in the male vocals, which are supported by the female backing vocals and they remind of how the vocals are used on Talking Heads “Remain In Light”. It’s followed by ‘Gumuz’ which begins with chanted male vocals and distant female vocal chants before phased guitar, double bass and a shuffling Latin rhythm slink in. An acoustic guitar plays a rhythm that gives the whole track forward momentum. There’s some nice electric piano chords that introduce themselves during a breakdown around 2 minutes 30 seconds and add warmth throughout the rest of the track. It’s the most modern of all the tracks I’ve hear from Astatke and he just about pulls it off, though some of the sounds are a little too smooth and polished and thus come off as a bit cheesy.

The album finishes with two great but contrasting tracks in ‘Motherland Abay’ and ‘Surma’. The former opens with sparse reverberate piano chords, swiftly followed a picked krar melody, chimes and the bowing of the masinko. Mulatu’s vibraphone twinkles in and out of the mix. This mix of instruments creates a desolate atmosphere. A washint (bamboo flute) enters and creates a haunting melody that swoops down on the listener. The masinko drives in low in the 4th minute before a light drum beat and stringed melody and trumpet take over the vibraphone playing sparsely above and around them. The latter combines a drum roll that brings in the horns, percussion and bass line. The track breaks down for the verse, that features a tightly coiled guitar riff (muted), an acoustic guitar melody, shuffling drums and the horns all backing guest Fatoumata Diawara lead vocals. The track feels a lot more like an Afrobeat or High Life track than the Ethio-Jazz of Mulatu’s usual tracks. It’s sound is sparser and more poppy than the rest of the album.

In “Sketches of Ethiopia” Astatke has created an album that comes close to matching both solo work from the late 60’s and early 70’s and the “Inspiration Information” album that are regarded as his best work. A little more time with the album will no doubt confirm if it equals these past achievements and reveal yet more detail of this meticulous yet effortless artist. Highly recommed to existing Astatke fans and fans of East African music.   

This is a monthly feature where classic and cult albums are revisited and reassessed for the modern listener. The only rule is that it must be a critically acclaimed or cult record released before 2000.

Talking Heads – “Remain In Light” (Sire Records, 1980)

This month’s selection for Classics Critiqued has long been a personal favourite since my teenage years. It’s also an album that regular features in critics’ Greatest Albums lists, even making it to No.2 on Pitchfork’s Top 100 Albums of the ‘80s. That album is the avant funk masterpiece that is “Remain In Light” by Talking Heads. This seminal album was the band’s fourth and the third produced by English pop and rock music auteur Brian Eno. It was the band’s creative high water mark and signalled the end of their initial experimental phase before they became a poppier proposition for the remaining 12 years of their career.

Prior to the band getting together to create “Remain In Light”, David Byrne (vocals/lyrics/guitar) and Brian Eno  retreated to Los Angeles to create what would become their first collaborative album “My Life in the Bush of Ghosts” (1981). Although the concept behind “My Life in the Bush of Ghosts” continued to evolve during its creation the idea of creating a “fake ethnic record” seemed to run through the core of the result and provided inspiration for “Remain In Light”. Eno envisioned “Remain In Light” as creating a psychedelic vision of Africa. As Simon Reynolds observed in his book “Rip It Up and Start Again”: “Musically, “Bush of Ghosts” took the ideas of ‘Drugs’ and ‘I, Zimbra’ to the next level. Rampant texturology: Eno and Byrne drastically extended the sonic range of conventional instruments through processing and effects. And the technique of interlocking: each instrument played very simple parts, which they then meshed into complex, ever-shifting webs of texture rhythm”. Add all this together with Talking Heads own brand of New Wave rock music and you create an innovative album that almost completely blurs the lines between funk, Afro beat, traditional African music and American art rock.

In July 1980 Talking Heads reconvened with Eno at the Bahamas Compass Point recording studio, where Tina Weymouth (bass) and Chris Frantz (drums) had been holidaying together (they had become a couple shortly after Weymouth joined Talking Heads in 1975) to lay down the backing tracks for what would become “Remain In Light”. In a change from their usual writing/recording routine the band decided to jam ideas that were simultaneously recorded to then be edited, overdubbed and arranged in the second phase of recording, a highly unorthodox approach for a rock band in 1980. The band had decided on this course of action in order to move away from the conventional idea of lead singer and backing band and to craft songs in a more democratic way rather than relying solely on Byrne to write songs. This decision came about when Weymouth and Frantz had discussed leaving the band before all the members took a much needed break earlier in the year. After these recordings were made the band returned to New York’s Sigma Sound studio with the backing tracks more or less completed. Work continued at the New York studio where earlier in the year Jerry Harrison (guitar/keyboards) had produced an album for singer Nona Hendryx. She later provided backing vocals to “Remain In Light” that would enrich the rhythmic backing tracks. At this point the album entered phase two with Byrne struggling to write lyrics and vocal melodies to the backing track which featured only one or two chords. Meanwhile Eno, Harrison and engineer Dave Jerden edited the recordings into loops and overdubbed them with additional keyboard and guitar parts. Weymouth and Frantz rarely attended these session as one, their rhythm parts were already recorded and two, they felt pushed out by the close friendship of Eno and Byrne. Weymouth was particularly angry, describing their friendship as, “…they were dressing like one another…like two fourteen-year-old boys making an impression on each other”.

Eno, Byrne and Harrison all attended a Adrian Belew gig at the New York Plaza and were so blown away by his abstract guitar style that Eno asked if he could come down to Sigma Sound to contribute parts to the album (the pair had previously met when Belew played on David Bowie’s “Lodger” (1979). Belew turned up the next morning with his Roland GR30 guitar synth creating “the metallic distortions and wild spidery notes” heard on ‘The Great Curve’. This new addition “made the music radiate anew and provided an oddly companionable contrast” to the polyrhythmic African funk of the backing tracks. Jon Hassell, another one of Eno’s previous collaborators, played and arranged the stunning gauzy horns on ‘Houses In Motion’.

Their new approach to the writing and arranging of the music caused a problem for David Byrne who had to rethink his approach to writing lyrics and melodies as well as moving into new areas of subject matter. In an interview with Simon Reynolds, Byrne recalls “realizing that this music that was kind of groove-based implied a whole different social and psychological thing – much more ecstatic and trance-like. I realized I couldn’t think about the same things or at least not in the same way, if I was going to be true to what the music felt like. After “Fear of Music”, where I’d done a bit of recording the music first and putting words it later, I took a leap and said ‘Ok, I won’t go in with any lyrics at all.’ That meant I had to write words to fit the music. If I was in a neurotic or tense state of mind, it might not be suitable for the music because the music might not feel like that. I had to write in response to the music.” Reynolds also observed the following change in lyric tone and content. “If “Fear of Music” was about neurosis, “Remain In Light” reached for psychic wholeness, life newly reintegrated with nature and the body.” Talking Heads no longer dealt in white angst (with the exception of album closer ‘The Overload’). Instead it reached for the ecstatic both in terms of the lyrical content and delivery which took from Byrne’s love of soul, Eno’s of gospel and the band’s new found Afro beat influences. Even Eno’s usual restrained English delivery reached unexpected levels of passion when he sang backing vocals with Nona Hendryx who bought this out in him.

Byrne included a bibliography with the album’s press kit to illustrate the lyrics African inspirations; he cited Professor John Miller Cheroff’s “African Rhythm and African Sensibility” as the main influence. The book discussed the role of music in West African culture. The lyric that really stood out was “The world moves on a woman’s hips” from ‘The Great Curve’, which was inspired by “African Art in Motion” by Professor Robert Farris Thompson, though it could just as easily have come from a Fela Kuti song. The lyrics also dealt with identity with Byrne pondering “well, how did I get here” on ‘Once In A Lifetime’ to ‘Crosseyed and Painless’ on which he declares “lost my shape, trying to act casual/can’t stop, I might end up in the hospital”. So it appears he wasn’t able to fully exorcise his angst in the lyrics, though the delivery and backing tracks delivered plenty of ecstasy.

The legacy of “Remain In Light” is an interesting one. It’s difficult to pick out any bands/artists that have been directly influenced by the album and ‘Once In A Lifetime’ is the only song from the album that’s ever been covered. The song was also sampled by many rave and hip-hop acts who loved the song’s brilliant groove and easy conversion to an instrumental loop. It’s here we find the album’s key influence, the way the songs were put together preceded sampling and loop-based dance music. It’s in the DNA of these aforementioned tracks (and some more adventurous hip-hop tracks) that we find “Remain In Light”’s true decedents. “Remain In Light” is a truly unique album that stands up to even the toughest scrutiny even today, thirty two years on.

Let me know what you think of “Remain In Light” in the comments section or via our Twitter.

Listen to “Remain In Light” here.

The theory of cultural tourism will be explored by discussing a selection of Western artists who employ Eastern and world music compositional elements in their albums and vice versa. We will examine the critical reaction to these practices, the possible reasons why and if the argument is relevant.

Sting vs. Bjork

Sting and Bjork both use instrumentation, sounds and rhythms and take influence from varied genres of music but why is one derided and the other applauded for this? Both are wealthy Western musicians and have enjoyed decades in the music industry creating ethnically-sourced music yet through perception, marketing or fate Sting appears as a tasteless imposer financially gaining from Spanish/Portuguese language music while the popular consensus of Bjork is one of critically acclaimed innovation.

She is viewed by a great proportion of critics as an easily-bored pixie that flits around taking pleasure in working in different genres of music. Why is that more acceptable than Sting?  Perhaps their countries of origin reveal why they receive opposite critiques. On the periphery of Europe, Iceland is self-contained with almost magical connotations therefore Bjork can be interpreted as an innocent elflike woman while Sting appears as a modern-day colonialist because a mere scratch of England’s history uncovers an imperialist state leaving others bereft in its wake.

Throughout her career she has worked with diverse musicians like Konono No.1, The Icelandic Choir, Sureh Sathe, Talvin Singh, Rahzel, Timbaland, Matmos and RZA.  There is no question that she integrates these artists into her overall sound and they aid her elevation yet it is unlikely that Bjork would flutter around in collaboration with others if she cared more about a strong identifiable brand than creating a mood that changed from each individually crafted album and, certainly, collaboration is the operative phrase. She regularly mentions who she has worked with, acknowledging their involvement. The cynical may interpret it as simply name-dropping but these artists are being recognised by an international performer and introduced to wider audiences. Sting, however, does not often name who has partnered with him and though he desires for it to be known that he is a fan of Latin music there are no substantial specifics of why. ‘Songs From The Labyrinth’, Sting’s 2006 album of Elizabethan lute music was critically derided as the zenith of Sting’s pomposity. It came from such an intangible place it didn’t seem real. It was a futile fusion of a style aged centuries and an unbearable personality targeted at a very, very specific audience.

Bjork and Sting are brought together because each of their albums are diverse affairs but where Bjork sows her influences into the albums’ sounds and champions her guests, Sting’s stand alone and constricted because he is a world music dabbler not a devotee. And that is the problem. Chilean producer Matias Aguayo believes, “…adding a few congas and a ‘Latino’ vocal does not reflect a willingness to learn from other cultures…” Sting’s use of world music is beneficial solely to him and doesn’t demonstrate a respect for the countries he borrows music from because Sting is always the star.

Ethno-techno

Acclaimed South American electronic music artists Ricardo Villalobos, Matias Aguayo, Dinky and Gui Boratto employ the rhythms and sounds from their native countries, Chile and Brazil respectively, for use alongside that very European product, techno. Is it right for them to melt sounds which are not their own into those from their country and should it be accepted when European artists such as Sven Väth flavour techno with South American music?

Matias Aguayo thinks that European artists’ appropriation of ethnic music is cheap “exoticism” and “in most cases, putting samples of traditional songs on a techno beat is in very bad taste… it doesn’t seem very ‘free’ to me.” and rejects the idea that musicians do it because they feel a deep respect for the music. He hears a Western techno producer enforcing order where others hear an exciting cross-pollination of influence. This raises the question: why the double standard – why is it acceptable for Agauyo and others, especially Villalobos, to use electronic music production techniques and sounds in their compositions but objectionable when, for example, a German artist uses South American percussion?

An answer may be found by viewing the relationship history of the two hemispheres. Central and South America were colonised by European invaders. New religions and power structures were imposed, their languages and cultures all but destroyed in the process and poverty is still a factor in the lives of many inhabitants while the first world develops further from them so it is understandable that when Europeans adopt the music of their continent people get edgy. Perhaps, put simply, due to South American history as the subordinates when these artists use North American and European sounds it isn’t considered theft whereas due to these continents having a past of subjugation and suppression it looks again as if they are being exploitative when artists take influence from the places of previous conquests, as Aguayo feels.

The new rush of Western artists maintain they have a deep engagement with the source material and they are not just using a library of samples. The producer who has inspired much of the ethno-techno style is Ricardo Villalobos who employs it to reclaim his lost traditions after his parents fled to Germany after Pinochet’s overthrow and generate audience awareness, while retaining a respect for the music’s spirit.  Respect is a word that appears repeatedly in this argument between the continents. Their histories and ownership dilemmas are important factors to consider in the ethno-techno discussion yet Agauyo and others cannot fairly judge whether or not Western artists truly respect and understand the cultural and musical heritage they are interacting with once they incorporate South American instruments, rhythms and moods into their music. If they utilise them because of a respect and love for the music and culture and want to raise consciousness of it albeit through a techno perspective then it should perhaps be accepted.

The East adopts Western influences

It isn’t Westerners alone who adopt ideas, sounds and rhythms from African, Asian and South American culture. Since the 1960s artists, bands and composers living on these continents have taken elements from Western cultures. Fela Kuti (Nigerian band leader and inventor of the Afrobeat genre), Mulatu Astatke (originator of Ethio-Jazz, a fusion of jazz and traditional Ethiopian music) and A.R. Rahman (critically acclaimed Indian composer who introduced Bollywood and India to Western sounds) have studied music performance and composition in America and the UK and adapted and incorporated Western disciplines, ideas and sounds into their music.

Kuti, like many Nigerian and Ghanaian musicians, adopted the strong African-American musical influence of jazz and funk and married it to high life, a popular regional genre that is composed of a diverse range of styles like waltz and swing music, Trinidadian calypso and Liberian sailor songs. Astatke applied his jazz teachings and the American psychedelic funk heard in America to traditional Ethiopian melodies, harmonies and dusty atmospheres to create a deeply unique style. After becoming fascinated with a synthesizer his father, a composer, arranger and conductor for Malayalam films, had bought when Rahman was a young child he studied at Trinity College of Music (part of Oxford University) and combined his love of technology, music studies and traditional Indian upbringing to revolutionise Bollywood soundtracks.

Why does it appear that there is no criticism of these musicians and their contemporaries’ practices? Is it acceptable for them to raid Western music? Other than the odd disapproval levelled at some world music adaptations for sounding clichéd, criticisms of Third World musicians utilising Western musical forms are rare. I could suggest this is because critics believe they will be barracked into withdrawing their points and white guilt may play a part in their decision whether or not to critique works yet though this may be a factor, the problem is more complex.

Lost in a web of misconceptions and expectations about ‘world music’, it is difficult to approach and truly understand. Even when world music ideas have been simplified, unravelling the myriad of musical forms is challenging. These cultural traditions and musical forms often stretch back hundreds of years before Western civilisations formally documented their own and are further complicated by most only being passed down generations through word of mouth. Critics face an uphill struggle negotiating the complications and restrictions to tackle the music and understand it sufficiently to make a qualified summary.

Intimidating mountains of research and history aside perhaps the biggest problem is awareness. Do we still perceive these artists as people crouching in the dirt playing skin drums, sitars and other traditional instruments? I would like to think I am an intelligent and open minded person but I was disappointed with the music and myself when after a great deal of reading I finally listened to afrobeat music, particularly Fela Kuti. I had expected to be greeted by tribal drums accompanied by funk bass and searing brass, what I got was akin to jazz fusion. However, after further reading and exposure to African music old and new my ideas changed and I am now not dissatisfied as I understand what afrobeat is and how it came into existence. The ‘afro’ in afrobeat refers not to ancient tribal rhythms but subtle incorporations of high life guitar melodies, chanted lyrics and Afro-Caribbean calypso music influences. This is an example of the kind of misperception that can hinder world music, which stems from an ideological colonialism meaning we impose ideas of what it should be instead of what it actually is. World music is at our mercy, an obedient slave to outmoded cultural notions.

So this realisation renders us unable to level criticism at the world music genre and all that it histrionically represents. White guilt, misperception, false expectations and prejudices become our undoing. Add to this, well meaning misconceptions about its musical purity and authenticity compared to Western music yet it and Eastern music can be equally amazing and unequivocally shit, where an artist is born and which culture they come from bears little importance on whether they produce great music or not. Similarities can be drawn between Eastern and Western music, which bands such as Vampire Weekend have seized upon. They saw a link between the jangly guitar of American and English alternative rock and that of Nigerian high life and they knew they were not risking alienating their hipster fanbase while creating a neat Unique Selling Point for themselves. Links and similarities prove how ridiculous it is to suggest that world music has a greater sense of authenticity or rootsiness and that it is not an alternative to Western popular music but the non-Western equivalent. That isn’t to suggest that either is worth less than the other but they are in fact equals and thus should be treated as such critically.

As evidenced by the complex and moral problems explored in this piece it’s easy to become over-involved in these ideas and forget about what’s really important… the music. A vital function of music is the enjoyment of discovery however that is made, accidental, recommendation, record company marketing or otherwise and wherever it originates. There is definitely a discussion to have about the (mis)appropriation of music influences and fundamentals by Westerners whom often have a colonial history in the countries and continents their musicians mine.

But set aside those sceptical opinions and regrettable events that happened before we were born and able to object. We live in world where we can experience these musical hybrids and the increased awareness and cultural prominence of world music allows us to interact with other cultures if not fully appreciate and understand them. We don’t disrespect them by listening to and enjoying them, our life experience and that of Easterners, South Americans and Africans can be enriched by engaging with a diverse range of cultures from the past (Kuti, Astatke, Rahman, etc) and the present (Omar Souleyman, Konono No.1, Ricardo Villalobos etc) and through collaboration we can be introduced to these genres with brilliant results like Bjork’s ‘Earth Intruders’.

Getting lost in the murky waters and twisting tunnels of morality will never replace that feeling of experiencing a new piece or style of music so turn it on, turn it up and open yourself up to all the possibilities the world of music offers.

By Liam Flanagan and Vier (first collaboration for Sonic Fiction)

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Cultural Tourism playlist

Cultural Tourism playlist

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